The importance of working from a strengths based perspective is one of the first things I learned in social work school.
For those of us not familiar with this, it’s exactly what it sounds like. When people come to us for help, they come to us with problems. Especially if they’re referred by another source due to parenting problems. (ACS, family court, I’m looking in your direction.) They’re constantly hearing: you did this wrong. You should have done it this way. You’re deficient in this area.
So it can be pretty empowering when they come to us, and the first thing they hear is: what’s working for you guys? What are you good at? What are you doing well?
Abusive monsters are fairly rare. That’s why they make the news. Most of the people we work with have some strengths. It can be disheartening, at times, to see how hard it is for some people to name one of their strengths. They just draw a blank. What do you mean, something that the family is good at? Would we be here if we were good at things? One of my most important social work skills is helping them to start small, so they can build on that.
SocialJerk: “Well, you’re here. That’s a strength.”
Mom: “Only because the judge said I had to come.”
SocialJerk “But she didn’t carry you here. And you brought the kids. They all have clothes on and they seem to have been fed.”
Mom: “Um, yeah. You’re saying me not bringing in naked, hungry kids is a good thing? What do you see in this office?”
Ma’am, you have no idea.
It’s true. Everybody has strengths. And many things can be viewed in a more positive light. Yes, you hit your kids, but you did it because you were worried about them getting hurt because they stayed out all night. It doesn’t make what you did OK, but the fact that you had the right motivation means that you can change. You can learn ways to discipline your children that will be less destructive and more effective.
Sometimes, though, kids are in danger. And sometimes, strengths need to take a back seat.
A coworker of mine, back at my second year field placement, had a rather tricky family. The parents had joint custody and a contentious relationship. In this situation, the father was more together than the mother, who rarely prioritized her child and was rather unpredictable in her moods.
A conference was held, due to the father’s concerns about inadequate guardianship and medical neglect when the five year old was with her mother. Apparently, when the little girl was with her mother, she complained about chest pains one night. The mother told her that it was “just her boobies growing,” and to go back to bed.
We all remember hearing those motherly words of wisdom, don’t we ladies? Almost amusing. But this kid had a pre-existing heart condition, and this could have been really bad.
As an agency, we approach our families from a strengths-based perspective. Like geometric proofs, though, this has its limits. (I apologize for that. Sincerely.)
My coworker was horrified by a number of things. One, that the mother was not worried about her daughter’s heart health. At least, not enough to take her to the emergency room that night, or even to make an appointment with the pediatrician the next day. Two, that the mother could not admit that this might have been an error in judgment.
Unfortunately, her supervisor did not help with the horror.
“So what I’m hearing is, you have a different view of when children should be taken to the doctor?”
Yes. Her view isn’t “wrong,” it’s “different!” She believes children should only be taken to the doctor when healthy or dead. Not when they’re ill. Maybe it’s cultural?
No. It was just wrong. And people using this empowering approach incorrectly and irresponsibly makes us all look like whackjobs who don’t put children’s safety first.
I don’t believe in focusing only on what a family is doing poorly, or how they are putting their children at risk. But there is pretty much always some place to meet in the middle. I have to remind myself that just because I dislike the child protective worker’s approach, it doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong.
Most of my philosophy of work, life, relationships, and eating cheetos boils down to moderation. It is our friend. A happy medium does, in fact, exist. We can keep more than one idea in the forefront of our minds. Safety, and strengths. Guidance, and empowerment. Cheesy snacks, and not having to buy new pants.
We can’t be so married to any one philosophy that it clouds our common sense. Because I’m finding more and more that it isn’t as common as I thought.